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Weissman writes: "Even with the agreement between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, we are still a long way from knowing the truth about the use of poison gas in Syria."

Syrian rebel forces. (photo: unknown)
Syrian rebel forces. (photo: unknown)

What If the Rebels Spread Some of the Poison Gas in Syria?

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

15 September 13


o one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria," Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote in The New York Times. "But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack - this time against Israel - cannot be ignored."

"We know the Assad regime was responsible," American president Barack Obama said in his major speech on Syria. "In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gasmasks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in Assad's military machine reviewed the results of the attack, and the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed."

Which president should we believe? The answer should be obvious. Neither one. We do not need our spiritual mentor I.F. Stone to remind us that "All governments lie." We cannot even take on faith the United Nations weapons inspectors, who will reportedly "point the finger of blame" at the Assad regime for the August 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus. According to The Times of London, the inspectors found "spent rocket casings" that look as if they came from the Syrian army.

If Assad - or at least the Syrian army - turns out to be where their finger points, the inspectors may be right. But hold this in mind: the inspectors never sought to do a full inspection on who used which weapons where. That was never their mission, and anything they find pointing to guilt one way or another will be only incidental. Even with the best will in the world, if inspectors - and journalists - do not ask the right questions in the right places and truly test the answers they get, they will never provide Putin, POTUS, or the rest of us with a narrative the world can trust.

Even with the agreement between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, we are still a long way from knowing the truth about the use of poison gas in Syria. Many conspiracy-minded websites have oversold one cocksure truth or another. Israeli intelligence pushes its anti-Assad slant in unbelievable detail, and many of our own readers offer unsubstantiated claims in their comments on articles here at RSN. From pundits to presidents, let's all speak about the situation on the ground with less certainty and more transparency.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry could begin by revealing the intelligence information underlying their bold assertions that Assad made the decisions to use poison gas. Their unclassified four-page white paper is a White House political document remarkably free of any facts that independent investigators could check out, as Robert Parry wrote on August 30. According to Representative Alan Grayson, the 12-page classified summary shown to Congress lacked the underlying intelligence as well, while Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity have warned Obama that he is not getting the full truth. Former co-workers tell them, they write, that "the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this."

Using the present lull to dig into the facts could prove a matter of life and death. Most members of Congress appear to believe the White House narrative, at least as I read scores of press accounts. The lawmakers may think Obama's military strike too limited to have much impact or too unlimited to keep the United States from getting further embroiled in another war of choice that their constituents do not want. But the majority seems to have swallowed the slant that Team Obama has fed them, as have most of the mainstream media.

Why does this matter? Simple. If, for whatever reason - including the intransigence of the rebels - the U.N. looks unable to control and destroy Assad's stock of poison gas, this misplaced certainty will make American military intervention all too likely. War hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham appear to harbor such hopes as they snipe from the sidelines.

President Putin, for his part, needs to come clean about what his intelligence people know from their privileged position in Syria. Back on March 19, an earlier gas attack killed 26 people in a Syrian village near Aleppo. Reports of the incident from Israel caught Obama off-guard, as I wrote in "Israelis and Neocons Bang the War Drums Louder." The same players played the same roles as in the August crisis over the gassing near Damascus, though the Israeli minister for strategic affairs, Yuval Steinetz, held open the possibility that the rebels were responsible. The White House rejected that out of hand, but in July the Russians gave the U.N. a hundred-page report laying out the case in scientific detail that the rebels had launched the attack. This provided much of the background for President Putin's claims in his Op-Ed in The New York Times.

Putin, like Obama, was making a political case rather than a cogent summary of scientific and intelligence information. U.N. inspectors need to give us their evaluation of the Russian report on Aleppo, while Putin needs to tell us what his people know about Assad's activities and those of Hezbollah and the Iranian fighters in Syria. The time for partisan claims is over. Russian and the United States need to share intelligence, not use it for competing propaganda. And both sides need to look at all the participants, including the rebels and their Saudi, Qatari, and other Sunni suppliers.

Finally, the U.N. needs to give its inspectors carte blanche to investigate fully who did what and when, including press accounts of the rebels using gas. Stopping Bashir al-Assad from using chemical weapons will prove a pyrrhic victory if terrorists - whether Sunni, Shia, or Chechen nationalists - already have their hands on sarin and other poison gases. your social media marketing partner
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